Library services used by homeless get more resources, funds

At a computer
Many people use computers at the Hennepin County Library for the free Internet connection the library provides.
Courtesy Hennepin County Library

Across Minnesota, many low-income and homeless people turn to public libraries for health information and educational resources. The downtown Minneapolis Central Library sees up to 400 homeless visitors on any given day and word is spreading that the library has services that can help those who need it.

Now, those programs are getting a financial boost.

Libraries in Hennepin County, Duluth and Rochester are currently increasing or creating services for homeless and low-income visitors after receiving grants totaling more than $155,000 from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation this summer.

"We want to do more than have just a cozy or safe place for people where they can charge their phones," said Ali Turner, division manager for system services for the Hennepin County Library system.

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Traditionally underserved people flock to libraries because they see them as a welcoming source of information, Turner said.

A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that 41 percent of people who used Internet at a library did so to look or apply for jobs, and nearly half sought health information.

Rochester libraries are using the grant to conduct basic health screening. In Duluth, libraries are helping low-income families find health insurance.

"The common theme is that the library is a critical go-to place for sharing about information that we know is critical to advancing health," said Stacey Millett, senior program officer for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation. At the Minneapolis Central Library, Turner said social workers and county employees host "office hours" each Wednesday where they teach computer basics, checkbook balancing and other skills.

The grant allows services like these to expand in Minneapolis and around the county. Though it's sometimes unseen, Turner said there are still homeless or low-income people who go to libraries for help.

"We know that there are plenty of people living in their cars and maybe have a place to sleep on a couch or in a garage out in the suburbs," she said. "It's much less visible, but we see just as many of those folks spending the day in our libraries."

The grants will last through August, Turner said.